Trompe Le Monde: The Return of Erwin Saunders

(This article first published in the Fortean Times No 407, dated July 2021)

After a gap of almost two years, intrepid pixie-hunter Erwin Saunders has resumed his investigations. With his Youtube views ascending into the millions, global Erwinmania seems imminent: even the British tabloids have begun to speculate about the truth behind these eccentric short films. Bob Fischer rounds up the latest developments, and even secures an interview (of sorts) with the elusive Erwin himself…

Morsu pixies, tremble in your ziggurats. Erwin Saunders is back.

The bearded “ethereologist” became the subject of his first Fortean Times feature back in August 2020 after Ghost Box Records founder Jim Jupp alerted me to the presence of seventeen short Youtube videos uploaded between September 2017 and July 2019. Shot in idyllic British woodland, they appear to depict the amiably bumbling Erwin documenting the behaviour of a mischievous species of native faery being. The pixies themselves are seen onscreen and are a convincing presence, and Erwin’s adventures are charming and immersive: he leaves Flying Saucer sweets as bait (“They go mad for the sherbet”) and finds tiny, elaborate walkways strung between the trees, all the while engaged in a good-natured war of words with his unseen accomplice, a “young film-maker” called Tom.

At that stage, the films seemed a little under-appreciated. Erwin’s Youtube subscribers numbered in the low thousands, and – by the time of the seventeenth film – the man himself appeared dejected, distractedly cutting off clumps of his beard and claiming to have been struck by a poisoned pixie arrow with hallucinogenic properties. From July 2019 to February 2021, no further uploads were made, but speculation began to grow as to the nature of Erwin’s true identity.

“I was able to link one particular video on the Erwin Saunders channel, ‘Searching for Wiltons Pixies’ to a video on the bustykelp Youtube channel, ‘Pixie’, uploaded 11 years ago,” wrote Fortean Times reader Adam Waldock. “This led me to the Busty Kelp animation studio, the director of which is Paul Smith. On his LinkedIn profile, there is a clear resemblance with the Erwin Saunders character”.

Completely different names, meanwhile, were suggested to me in e-mails from other Fortean Times readers, amid – I’m happy to say – testaments on my Haunted Generation website from readers convinced that Erwin and the Morsu pixies were entirely real. This all, however, seemed entirely academic. The Erwin Saunders Youtube channel remained resolutely untouched, despite a giddy spiral of interest: by February 2021, over 100,000 subscribers had pledged their allegiance. And then, on 5th February, there was an intriguingly cryptic development. A new video was uploaded: a static illustration of a headstone or marker stone covered in mystical symbols, accompanied by the sound of a barely audible human voice drowned out by mournful bagpipes. 

This, amazingly, prompted the attention of the British tabloids. “Pixie hunter Erwin Saunders who ‘filmed Britain’s wilderness folk’ for 25 years returns” was the headline posted on the Daily Star website on 6th March 2021, above a story written by reporter Michael Moran. “The bearded eccentric sparked a cult after he uploaded a series of YouTube videos chronicling his discovery of ‘wilderness folk’ hiding in the hedgerows and undergrowth of a remote English wood,” continued the feature. “Then, as strangely as he appeared on the scene, Erwin vanished. He hasn’t been heard of for over a year. But a spooky two-minute video uploaded to his YouTube channel seems to promise a return.”

“Some internet detectives theorise that the real creative force behind Erwin’s paranormal adventures is CGI wizard Paul Smith – which would certainly go some way towards explaining the photorealistic ten-inch tall pixies scampering around in the videos”.

Shortly afterwards, I was contacted by Fortean Times reader Roger J. Morgan, who had cracked Erwin’s cryptic marker stone message. The voice beneath the bagpipes was reading Robert Burns’ 1790 poem Lament Of Mary, Queen Of Scots, On The Approach Of Spring, and the main inscription on the stone was written in a 16th century cipher used by Mary and her co-conspirators to plot the assassination of Queen Elizabeth I. It decodes as:

COOKERY, COVENANTS, DISSOLVE
ARROWS, TONICS, CARRIES
BEAST, BUNNY, BRANCH

Entering each of these lines into What3Words, the app that assigns a unique three-word combination to every 3m² area of the Earth, reveals three contrasting locations. “Cookery, Covenants, Dissolve” takes us to the Many Thanks gift shop in Mauchline, Scotland; “Arrows, Tonics, Carries” to Hundred Thousand Creek on the west coast of Canada; and “Beast, Bunny, Branch” to a marina in Plymouth where a cluster of submarines are docked.

The hidden message here? “Many Thanks, Hundred Thousand, Subs”. Touchingly, the cryptic missive is little more than Erwin expressing gratitude to the 100,000 subscribers on his Youtube channel. Meanwhile, the characters in the sky above the stone translate as “AVALON”; the underlined characters on the stone become “IRCTUBH” and – beneath the main message on the stone – there are characters that decode as “F——-G”.

Arranging the scrambled underlined characters into these gaps gives us “FITCHBURG”, and putting “AVALON FITCHBURG” into What3Words brings us to the Avalon Assisted Living Community in Fitchburg, Wisconsin. The drawings of fish on Erwin’s stone are presumably a reference to its location on Fish Hatchery Road; and close inspection of this building on Google Maps reveals the mysterious shapes at the bottom of Erwin’s stone are a depiction of its parking spaces, with the What3Words logo between them. The drawing in the bottom left-hand corner of the stone has a tilted square inside it, and this corresponds with a 3m² What3Words location in the corner of the car park. The combination of words representing this space? “Return, This, Spring”.

Fired by the prospect of Erwin’s return, I tracked down Paul Smith of Busty Kelp CGI. Suggesting in an e-mail that he may be a “close associate” of Erwin, I requested an interview with the enigmatic pixie-hunter himself. A few days passed before I received a reply. “I have had a few people approach me about this subject,” explained Paul. “But I can’t directly help I’m afraid. However, there is a guy called Tom, claiming to be an associate of Erwin, who got in contact a while back, sending an apology in case I’d had too much unwanted attention…”

Freshly armed with the e-mail address of a man I assumed to be Erwin’s frequently namechecked accomplice, I sent another request for an interview with the man himself. Again, several days passed before I received a reply that kickstarted an splendidly entertaining string of messages.

“Erwin is often very unforthcoming,” explained Tom, when he got in touch. “I mentioned your article to him when it came out. He was curious about it, but got a bit funny when I mentioned other subjects the Fortean Times explores. He’s quite intolerant of paranormal beliefs in general…”

“Erwin really is not the best at self promotion. But personally I think it’s a great idea, because the more coverage (and thus views) he gets, the more expeditions he can fund. So… thinking out loud here… what do you think about sending me the questions you want to ask? I’ll see if I can figure out some marginally covert way of finding out the answers.”

I did precisely this, and eagerly awaited a reply. Three days later, on 29th April 2021, a new 15-minute video was uploaded to Erwin’s Youtube channel. Titled ‘Unusual Pixie behaviour’, it’s the first of the films to name a specific location (“the outskirts of Dartmoor”) and – indeed – to feature Tom himself, who appears on camera alongside the now luxuriantly hirsute pixie-hunter. The production values and cinematography have improved: incidental music, sumptuous cutaway shots and hand-drawn illustrations of pixie activity abound, and there are flashbacks to amateur camcorder footage from “about ten years ago”, seemingly showing younger versions of both men on a similar expedition. There is a fleeting, distant glimpse of a “standard Devonshire pixie” walking across the top of a rock formation, and Tom steps into a bog and has to wring out his socks. It’s wonderful.

Twelve days later, I received a further e-mail from Tom with an audio file attached. This, excitingly, was an 18-minute phone conversation with Erwin, in which Tom had indeed tried to weave my interview questions into a chat frequently derailed by Erwin’s pre-occupation with retrieving a missing tool, stuck in the gap at the foot of his van door. It begins with Erwin seemingly confused about the nature of a Samoyed dog (“A Samurai?”) before Tom attempts to pin down when exactly he began tracking the Morsu pixies.

“That was a long time ago,” comes the reply. “A very long time ago. Youtube… was your idea, wasn’t it? That was 2016. But I’d been doing it for a long time before that.”

Curiously, Tom asks if remembering the music of the era might pinpoint a date. “The sort of tail end of punk,” suggests Erwin. Perhaps somewhat incongruously, as he seems an unlikely Sham 69 fan. They then discuss the parking situation for a forthcoming trip to Wales, before Erwin opens up about pixie hotspots in other regions of the UK.

“They’re pretty much everywhere,” he confirms. “Dartmoor probably has about three year’s worth of material itself. So we can go back there, and then Wales and the Brecons, and there are all the valleys and small hills and mountains. Up in Snowdonia… it’s very rich up there. And that’s just in Wales. They’re all over the place, really. Down the coastline as well.”

Tom presses him about the dangers of the Welsh expedition (“It depends what you mean by dangerous, I suppose”) and asks why Erwin stopped posting videos for the best part of two years. At this part, the intrepid pixie-hunter becomes a little tetchy (“Why are you asking me all these weird questions?”) but nevertheless expands a little on the reasons behind his disappearance.  

“Originally you persuaded me into doing it because you said it would be fun, and it did turn out to be fun,” he explains. “But I think I had, at that point, probably about 800 subscribers or something… I didn’t feel the urgency to keep on making them because it wasn’t really helping me in terms of financing the operation.

“And then when lockdown happened I just sort of kept putting them off… which I felt terrible about, because obviously people were waiting. But I sort of lost interest for a while. And then when you told me that so many people were now looking at it, I thought ‘Well OK…’ It felt like I’d better get back out there and do something.”

And the puzzle on the marker stone? Did he expect people to crack the code and solve the riddle?

“Of course yes, eventually”, says Erwin. “I thought it might take a couple of weeks, and I think it was less than that. I’m glad it didn’t go on too much longer because I think people would have bored or thought that it was some sort of hoax with no real solution.” Clearly an enthusiastic puzzle fan, he also expresses an admiration for Kit Williams’ best-selling 1979 treasure-hunting book, Masquerade.

Tom brings up the possibility of sponsorship to fund the videos, and Erwin references a new camping stove recently captured on camera: “I was actually filming today,” he confirms. He also hints at the potential return of the “wyrm”, the ranger dangerous-looking lizard creature fleetingly glimpsed in a video entitled ‘A New Faery Species?’, uploaded on 20th May 2019.

“I’m filming around the wyrm cave,” he explains. “It’s not safe at all. That’s why I don’t want to go down there on my own, and I’m surprised that you want to go down there. I’m sure you’ll bottle out. The one that I saw appeared to be a juvenile, so it’ll have a couple of years growth on it since that last video. Or however long it was – two years? Three years? Certainly two years, so he’ll be a bit bigger than he was.”

“Also, I can’t remember if I told you: I had a theory about the relationship between the pixies and the wyrm based on something I found on one of the documents from the Etherelogical Society…”

And that, essentially, is that. Erwin promises to expand more on this document during the Welsh expedition, and expresses further bemusement about the nature of the phone call. “I still don’t know quite what you were calling about,” he exclaims. Although when, in a subsequent e-mail, I raised concerns about the ethics of having conducted the interview in this way, Tom reassured me. “I asked him… if he minded me telling anybody what he’d said and he said he didn’t,” he insisted. “So all good”.

On 19th May 2021, a new 11-minute video was uploaded: ‘Trying to locate his hideout’. Erwin’s enthusiastic use of a new stove, close to the location of the 2019 wyrm cave, suggests this is indeed the solo filming referenced during the phone call. He professes to be nervous, has to shelter from torrential rain, and catches brief footage of the pixie who – it is implied – fired the fateful hallucinogenic arrow that brought the first phase of filming to a close, two years earlier. It’s as charmingly offbeat as ever: the latest instalment in an increasingly immersive world of pastoral strangeness that is proving to be an essential refuge for Erwin’s growing army of fans. At time of writing, four days later, the two “comeback” videos alone had racked up 264,000 views between them. Erwinmania starts here.

There are now 22 Erwin Saunders videos here:

https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=UUIptHpq0tre-Mnu2V1VOoww

The original Fortean Times feature is here:

https://hauntedgeneration.co.uk/2020/08/19/erwin-saunders-pixie-hunter/

And the new Fortean Times (Issue 408) is now available, and looks like this:

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