Mystics, channellors, spirit guides, medicine men, white witches, ghost hunters and all kinds of other types of people have often claimed to be able to discern what type of spirit is nearby. With looks of either horror or pity on their face, they inform the living if the spirit is good or bad, benevolent or malevolent. But are things that simple? If souls are our true selves, and we have free will and motive, it seems that a spirit's actions are likely to be like ours: sometimes nice, sometimes unkind. Dramatic pronouncements on their status as good or evil are too simplistic to be true. And if there are very evil spirits out there, then, it seems that they could simply trick us, just like living humans can. According to the Christian bible "Satan himself masquerades as an angel of light" (2 Corinthians 11:14), and, God often does evil things (Isaiah 45:7). If the most-evil and most-good beings can fool puny Human minds into appearing the opposite, then, what chance has anyone of truly deciding if mundane spirits are good or bad? Those who claim to be able to make such divisions are faking it, or have led themselves into a simplistic state of melodrama and delusion.
Since the dawn of time mystics and religious leaders have tried to discern what types of spirits are behind the events of the world. Importantly, were they good spirits or evil ones? In traditional religions shamans and the like would have the important duty of contacting spirits and finding out if they were benevolent or malevolent1. Throughout the middle ages priests would bring in revenue doing exactly the same thing. New Agers and modern mystics pride themselves on how they can "feel" if a spirit in a particular room or location is good or evil, helpful or harmful.
But in Human history, our attitudes towards spirits have often been mind-bogglingly superstitious and nonsensical. All kinds of daft medieval rituals were engaged with in order to ward of spirits. For example, urine-soaked shoes placed under a chimney stops demons from entering the house through that opening. This highlights one of two things: Either we humans really do believe some very strange and unlikely laws of spirituality are at work, or, we simply allow ourselves to get swept away with ridiculous ideas without spending time thinking about whether or not we are acting sensibly. It seems there is almost a paralysing loss of critical thought when it comes to such matters, and the result is that we are often drawn into zany behaviours which any outsider will spot as being pretty foolish.
“In Siberia for instance people are careful to use metaphorical language when talking about important matters. This is because nasty spirits often eavesdrop on humans and try to foil their plans. [...] In many place in Africa it is quite polite when visiting friends or relatives to express one's sympathy with them for having such 'ugly' or 'unpleasant' children. The idea is that witches, always on the lookout for nice children to 'eat', will be fooled by this naive stratagem. It is also common to give children names that suggest disgrace or misfortune, for the same reason. In Haiti one of the worries of people who had just lost a relative was that the corpse might be stolen by a witch. To avoid this people sometimes buried their dead with a length of thread and an eyeless needle. The idea was that witches would find the needle and try to thread it, which would keep them busy for centuries so they would forget all about the corpse.”
The holes in these customs are so glaringly obvious that even a child will gawk at the daftness. There is apparently a belief that spirits possess no intelligence, no memory, no personality: a witch will automatically try to thread any needle it comes across. Spirits are incapable of learning about the very simple deception used by Siberians to foil their search for nice children. The point of highlighting all of is that we can see the daftness of their concept of spirit, but, we are all so frequently unable to see the daftness of our own culture's approach. Spirits aren't divided neatly into "good" and "evil" just like witches don't automatically thread needles. Living beings just don't fit into such neat boxes. That different cultures have such massively different ideas as to what is possible is a big clue that there is no particular underlying truth to any of it.
It holds that if we have free will to choose our actions whilst alive, and that our life comes from our soul, then our soul is what has free will. Our bodies are just biochemical machines; those who believe in free will and souls no doubt hold that it is the soul that allows free will to be exerted upon our otherwise mindless bodies. As the source of free will, the soul must also have free will after bodily death.
This means that you cannot have spirits that are good or evil: They are capable of free will just as any other higher life. To say that a spirit is "evil" or "harmful" or "bad" is saying that it has no free will to act haphazardly. Although some humans seem to be almost purely evil, and some humans almost always attempt to do good, the vast majority exist in the middle ground. Spirits, at least the ones that are departed humans, continue to have free will and no doubt continue to mostly occupy the middle ground, being sometimes good, sometimes bad.
We all know that the most ill-seeming men can sometimes be the goodguys and that the most openly kind can frequently be the most callous and secretly evil. This brings to mind 2 Corinthians 11:14, "And no wonder, for Satan himself masquerades as an angel of light". If the most evil beings can fool puny Human minds into appearing good, then, what chance has anyone of truly deciding if a spirit is good or bad?
Certain rooms, atmospheres are locations lend themselves to a general spookiness. A sense of malaise. This has been studied extensively not only by occult, new age and magical practitioners but also by sociologists and psychologists. It is surely the case that we are only reacting to the environment. Anton LaVey, founder and High Priest of the Church of Satan from 1966 until 1997, held the belief that various factors would determine whether people took kindly to a location or not. Odd angles, smells that are just-below-the senses and breezes, the quality of the air and various other things could all conspire to make people feel unease. This would of course lead to certain places becoming associated with evil spirits. More mainstream psychologists have put forward multiple and varied descriptions of how the subconscious can lead to feelings of being watched, of "presences" of either good or evil spirits. But above all the Human knack of over-simplification and over-confidence that is the final obstacle in realizing the true nature of spirits: neither good nor evil, but gray, just like free-willed Human beings and animals.
Fear and emotions generate either bad or good experience of "spirits", the phenomenon is subconsciously self-created, this is also the conclusion of a good study of supernatural events and the human subconscious, "The Origins of Psychic Phenomena: Poltergeists, Incubi, Succubi, and the Unconscious Mind" by Stan Gooch (2007) [Book Review].
The Human subconscious and environmental factors determine if we find a particular place spooky or whether we think a good or evil spirit might reside there. Most the time it is human projection. But given the existence of free will it seems that no spirit is either "good" or "evil": They will sometimes be good, sometimes be evil, just like Human beings. In addition, evil spirits can trick us into thinking they are good spirits, and sometimes even the most kind and benevolent person simply comes across as nasty (like God in the Old Testament): It is dangerous and wrong to pronounce that spirits are "good" or "evil", benevolent or malevolent.
The Bible (NIV). The NIV is the best translation for accuracy whilst maintaining readability. Multiple authors, a compendium of multiple previously published books. I prefer to take quotes from the NIV but where I quote the Bible en masse I must quote from the KJV because it is not copyrighted, whilst the NIV is. [Book Review]
(1996) Shamanism. Published by Element Books.
(2007) The Origins of Psychic Phenomena: Poltergeists, Incubi, Succubi, and the Unconscious Mind. My references are to the original edition published as "Creatures from Inner Space" (1984, hardback) by Rider & Company, London, UK. The edition linked to here is published by Inner Traditions 2007; information retrieved from Amazon UK on 2007 Dec 14. [Book Review]