I have no idea how long the term “kindertrauma” has been lingering in online media discussions, but I have been seeing it a lot lately. It’s a useful, succinct description of a very specific phenomenon that means a broad range of things to a broad range of people. Kindertrauma movies are the movies that scared you as a young child, before you developed enough media literacy to fully understand what you were seeing. It’s the snippets of films that replayed in your childhood nightmares, distorted exponentially out of proportion the further you got away from the source. My own half-remembered kindertrauma clips were the janitor’s closet prison of The Lady in White, the bicycle surgeons of Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, the cotton-candy cocoons of Killer Klowns from Outer Space . . . all from movies my daycare owner’s teenage daughter happened to tape off the TV. For a lot of Millennials, images from the Canadian cheapie The Peanut Butter Solution ranks high on that list. It’s kindertrauma royalty.
The Peanut Butter Solution is just one of dozens of children’s films produced for the Canadian series Tales for All, but it’s the one that enjoyed the widest international distribution and the one that boasted the most baffling out-of-context images. It has all the gravitas of an Afterschool Special—right down to its dinky Casiotone score—but it’s a total nightmare for the young & unprepared. It’s a charming tale of local winos who died in a late-night squat fire while trying to keep warm, then befriend a local schoolboy as ghosts. The boy is so freaked out by the squat’s charred wreckage that he’s scared bald (a condition his doctor diagnoses as “hair ’em scare ’em”), so the ghosts have to coach him on how to get his mojo back with a secret hair-growth recipe passed around among undead drunkards. Only, he puts in more peanut butter than the recipe calls for (to help it stick better to his scalp, duh), so his hair starts going freakishly long, practically a foot a minute. This, of course, leads him to being kidnapped by his ornery art teacher, who imprisons dozens of his fellow classmates in an underground sweatshop that transforms his hair into magical paintbrushes. Any five-minute stretch of the film is enough to fire up the imaginations of kids who happened to catch it out-of-context on cable in the 80s & 90s, sticking to the backs of their minds like so much Skippy brand peanut butter (who paid for their prominent ad placement in the titular scene).
The Peanut Butter Solution is driven by the kind of little-kid nightmare logic that you can only find in German fairy tales and Canadian B-movies, pinpointing the middle ground between “Hansel & Gretel” and The Pit. It pretends to hold educational value for its pint-sized, impressionable audience, warning of the dangers lurking in abandoned buildings, strangers’ trucks, and overactive imaginations. It’s heart’s not really in that, though, and any attempts to make sense of its internal logic is just a path to madness. This wonderfully deranged tale is only truly interested in connecting the dots between a random assemblage of low-intensity menaces that freak kids out: teachers, bullies, the homeless, pubic hair, etc. It obviously couldn’t get away with adapting the standard “I dreamed I was naked in class” nightmare that a lot of kids have, so it stripped its protagonist naked in the only place that wouldn’t compromise its PG rating . . . and then it goes even weirder places.
Kindertrauma movies are obviously hyper specific to the eras when their freaked-out audiences were young children. Titles like Willy Wonka and The Wizard of Oz are iconic enough that they’ve inspired nightmares for entire generations of children for decades, but I feel like it’s the much smaller, more disposable media that qualifies as proper kindertrauma – the kind of cheap-o nightmare fuel that doesn’t stick around long enough to become culturally familiar, so it just privately burns in your brain for decades as low-heat nightmare fuel. I’ve seen a lot of those titles for the first time as a fully formed adult— Stepmonster, Paperhouse, Return to Oz, Troll 2, Gooby, The 5000 Fingers of Dr. T, etc.—but it’s always clear when you spot them; you can always tell “This warped someone’s brain as a kid.” They’re rarely this unpredictable, though. They’re also rarely this distinctly Canadian, considering that The Peanut Butter Solution happens to feature Céline Dion’s first two songs recorded in the English language. Even if you weren’t traumatized by it as a small, soft-brained child, it’s still a total Canuxploitation nightmare.