(This article first published in the Fortean Times No 395, dated August 2020)
Has a genially bumbling “ethereologist” captured conclusive evidence of England’s faery folk in a series of quietly-uploaded Youtube videos? Or is the whole thing merely a delightfully eccentric waltz up the woodland path? Bob Fischer loses himself in the gently beguiling world of Erwin Saunders…
It’s a beautiful, sun-dappled day and, in a thicket of dense woodland, an extravagantly bearded man in a camouflage hat is nervously explaining his 25-year hobby of tracking and cataloguing “wilderness folk”, in particular the “Morsu Pixies”. This – apparently – is Erwin Saunders and, over the course of seventeen Youtube videos uploaded between September 2017 and July 2019, he has created a beautifully immersive world of rustic strangeness and eccentricity. Or, indeed, proved conclusively the existence of mercurial faery folk in remote areas of English woodland. Consult your own sense of credulity and delete as applicable.
The Morsu, he explains in this opening video, are about ten inches high, with grey-ish skin. Pottering around a woodland cave entrance, he finds a tiny, discarded “hooker stick” used by the little folk (as he never calls them) to collect berries and mushrooms; this latter delicacy not only providing food for our native pixies but also the basis for their ointments and medicines. Erwin, who has a likeably hesitant and bumbling manner, becomes out of breath and loses his hat. He namechecks “Tom, the chap who’s helping me upload all of this”, and Tom remains a perpetually referenced but always unseen presence throughout all seventeen short films. We don’t, at any point in this opening video, see an actual pixie. That happens in the next instalment.
I was first alerted to Erwin’s work by Jim Jupp, co-founder of the Ghost Box record label, whose releases form a pivotal part of the Haunted Generation oeuvre). Jim had stumbled across Erwin’s Youtube channel while randomly searching for “fairy sightings” as part of his research for a future music video. “Have you come across this before?” he asked me. “Surely Fortean Times folk would know about this? I’m sure he must be a professional actor, and this is a between-jobs project…” To my shame, Erwin’s adventures were entirely new to me, but I quickly became entranced by the gloriously low-octane nature of his quest.
In the second video, accurately entitled ‘First Sighting of a Pixie’ and uploaded on 30th September 2017, we get a fleeting money shot. Making a popping noise with his tongue to imitate the sound of drums (“they’ll be curious”), Erwin is rewarded with the presence of a “scout” pixie who appears on the ridge of a towering rock formation, peering nervously down at our host and his camera. The creature is indeed a small, grey humanoid figure exhibiting skittish, meerkat-like movements. If – as we should probably assume – it’s CGI, then it’s very convincing. Erwin is predictably excited, and leaves bait around the site to encourage further sightings. These include cabbage and courgette seeds from his local garden centre, and – hilariously – Flying Saucer sweets. “They go mad for the sherbert,” he deadpans.
None of these strange vignettes are presented with tongue remotely lodged in cheek. There are no in-jokes, no winks to camera, no intimation that Erwin and his pixies are not real in any way. In fact, at no point does Erwin even suggest that he considers his hobby to be at all unusual. The videos are presented entirely matter-of-fact, as though the existence of pixies has become an accepted part of everyday British life, and he approaches his subject as though he were gently staking out a badger set for Springwatch. The only hint that he might be somewhat bashful about this curious quest comes in the very final video, in which an unseen female walker stumbles upon Erwin and is heard posing the immortal question: “Why are you filming yourself shooting leaves?”
Erwin, who has been idly pinging toy Nerf gun pellets into the undergrowth, looks flustered. “It’s a wildlife thing,” he stammers. “Just for fun, really.” Which is as fair a summation of the whole 22-month escapade as any other.
In the intervening videos, we follow Erwin on… well, not so much a roller-coaster ride of faery investigation, more a gentle merry-go-round. In the third and fourth instalments, there are further fleeting pixie sightings. Hilariously, Erwin’s sandwich is stolen, and we see it being dragged into a small cave by one of the bolder Morsu. “They’re complete kleptomaniacs,” he sighs, before revealing further tantalising details of pixie culture. They make hats and jewellery from bird skulls and claws, use slug skins for carrying water, and the “Morsu” monicker is one that Erwin has coined himself, from the Latin “Magnum Morsu” – which he roughly translates as “large teeth”. In the fifth video, ‘Morsu Pixie Temple’, we are shown an elaborately-carved mini-ziggurat in the woods, and in the eighth instalment Erwin finds tiny but elaborate walkways strung between the trees.
We have to wait until the twelfth video, ‘Searching for Wiltons Pixies’, for our clearest sighting of the faery folk at work. In a “flashback” sequence from what purports to be an older VHS recording, we see one rather cheeky-faced imp sporting a tiny backpack of collected pebbles that he lobs – not entirely successfully – to his comrade on an adjacent boulder, while a third member of the tribe lurks on the ground to collect the fallen detritus. And in the penultimate video, ‘A New Faery Species’, events take a unusually unsettling turn. Erwin ventures into a dark, forbidding cave entrance, and is startled by what he calls a “wyrm”, a large, four-legged, lizard-like creature crawling rapidly towards him. He is clearly scared, and so are we: it’s the one fleeting occasion on which the films become genuinely disquieting.
So the great mystery (aside from the actual nature of the faery folk captured on film, obviously): who is Erwin? If we assume that he’s a fictional character, then the acting is of an incredibly high standard. He blusters, stammers, gets excited and frustrated, and – despite plenty of lengthy one-take monologues to camera – never once breaks character. With his features largely hidden behind a mass of luxuriant silver hair and beard, usually accompanied by a hat and spectacles, he ostensibly appears to be a man in his fifties… but the occasional close-up sometimes betrays a younger-looking complexion. At the end of the opening film, another VHS recording supposedly dating from 2009 is incorporated into the footage, showing a leaner-looking Erwin with a darker, shorter beard.
The relationship with “Tom” seems pivotal, too. Spoken of in the fifth video as a “young film-maker”, Tom exerts a sometimes fractious influence on his older colleague, and Erwin occasionally speaks wearily of his accomplice’s desire for more ambitious shots and – indeed – internet recognition. “Like and subscribe,” Erwin reluctantly urges viewers at the end of later films, with the disclaimer that this swerve towards the corporate is entirely Tom’s idea, and that it makes him distinctly uncomfortable. Nevertheless, Tom’s input has a noticeable effect on the evolution of the films. While the earlier videos are charmingly clunky, with rough edits and distorted sound, later instalments have a glossy, professional sheen: there are expertly-framed linking shots of the woodland flora, and the surprise addition of wistful instrumental music. They’re like Detectorists with a soupçon of Country File. And added pixies.
The locations are never identified. The earliest films are shot in woodland with some very distinctive rock formations, and a handful of friends have – without prompting – suggested they resemble the features of Alderley Edge in Cheshire. A landscape that, appropriately, plays host to the magical folkloric escapades of Alan Garner’s books, with The Weirdstone of Brisingamen in particular featuring small, grey, goblin-like creatures emerging into the woods from an underground cave system. Curious. The first nine videos, all seemingly shot in the same area of woodland, were uploaded between 29th September and 17th October 2017 and culminate in Erwin standing beside a duckpond in an idyllic village location, explaining that he “won’t be around for a couple of days or so” because he’s visiting London to discuss tactics with Tom.
A six-month gap ensues. The next video dates from 9th April 2018, with Erwin in what initially appears to be a different woodland location. He suggests that illness, disillusionment with his lack of Youtube views, and a “squabble” with Tom are the reasons for the hiatus. It’s another month before the next update on the 14th May 2018, and then another ten-month gap until the final run of six films, all uploaded between 25th March and 10th July 2019. In the very last instalment, Erwin seems troubled, distracted and dispirited. Alarmingly, he frantically crops his beard on camera, roughly removing huge chunks of facial hair while claiming to have been shot in the neck by a poisoned pixie arrow with hallucinogenic properties. And ultimately, following the aforementioned Nerf Gun encounter, he professes to be “bored”, and wanders into the woods. And that, so far, is that.
The entire escapade is shrouded in enigma. Jim Jupp suggests Erwin’s films might form part of a viral publicity campaign for a forthcoming film or TV series, which seems entirely plausible. Personally, I like to think they’re merely the product of at least one restlessly creative mind simply deciding to have some fun on Youtube. Meanwhile, comments left on the videos suggest that a section of Erwin’s fanbase buy wholesale into the quest, and have enjoyed their own experiences with the faery folk. “When I was a child I remember making a fairy house,” remarks one viewer, beneath the second of Erwin’s films. “One day I caught one in it. It was transparent and sliver [sic] and when it saw me it looked at me and then flew away. Sometimes I think I just made it up but then I watch these type of videos and rethink.” Others are keen to share tales of similar encounters.
One potential clue: Jim points me to a thread on the Rogue Nation internet forum, where one contributor points out that Maggie Shayne’s fantasy novel Miranda’s Viking features a fictional character called Professor Erwin Saunders, and another called Jeff Morsi. But aside from this discussion, the original Youtube videos and the odd stray Facebook post, Google brings up precisely nothing about “our” Erwin and his quest. I’ve shared the videos on social media, and asked friends from both the folkloric and artistic communities if they recognise him, but received a succession of virtual blank stares. Amid, it has to be said, a welter of praise for his work. My rogue theory is that “young film-maker” Tom is actually the real identity of Erwin, thus providing the ultimate “hidden in plain sight” in-joke, but my evidence for this is nothing more than the cynical hunch of a world-weary old soak.
The most exciting possibility, of course, is that Erwin and his pixies are entirely real. I’d certainly be delighted to hear any evidence from anyone subscribing to any of the above theories. Or, indeed, from Erwin himself. In the meantime, search for “Erwin Saunders” on Youtube and immerse yourself in the slowly-unfolding strangeness of this gentle genius at work.
The seventeen Erwin Saunders videos are here (in reverse order):
And the new Fortean Times (Issue 396) is now available, and looks like this: